A family of economic refugees
comes into Moab. After the head of the family dies, a local woman called Ruth marries one of the widow's two sons (Ruth 1:4 - 4:15
). She lives uneventfully with her husband and in-laws until both her husband and his brother die. Then her mother-in-law Naomi decides to go back to her native land, Bethlehem.
On the way, her mother-in-law warns them that there's no future for them in Bethlehem. Ruth's sister-in-law
heeds the warning and returns to her own family in Moab. Ruth stays with an impassioned speech which I would adore if it weren't so overused as an example of feminine virtue. (She was one of the three examples of women used in the sermon that inspired me to start this series
.) I will note that, just as her sister-in-law doesn't explain why she's going home, nor does Ruth explain why she's sticking with Naomi. She just says, "Don't try to talk me out of it; I'm going with you and I'm staying with you until one of us dies."
She gets a book named after her.
They reach Bethlehem, but they've got nothing to call their own. Ruth, as a foreigner, has less social standing than a local servant girl. Fortunately it's harvest-time, and there's usually a bit of leftover grain that the men can't be bothered picking up off the ground. She decides to try her luck at gathering some of this from behind any men who'll tolerate her.
Fueled by hunger and spunk, she turns out to be a hard worker: when the owner of the field, Boaz, asks his foreman about this newcomer, the foreman says that she "has worked steadily from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter." Between this and her fame for having left her own parents to come here with Naomi -- and possibly her exotic looks -- Boaz is impressed, and takes her under his protection.
Ruth is suitably grateful, but not too humble to make the most of it. When Boaz invites her to eat lunch with him and the harvesters, she not only eats her fill but fills her pockets with food for her mother-in-law. When he tells his men to leave some extra grain for her, she takes everything she can get -- by the evening of that first day, she takes home about 22 litres of barley.
And, as she had promised, she keeps living with her mother-in-law.
Now her mother-in-law comes up with a plan to get Ruth married to Boaz. Boaz isn't the youngest guy around (he addresses her as "my daughter") but he is a relative of Ruth's late husband and he's been awfully generous to her. So she goes along with the scheme: she washes and perfumes herself, sneaks to the threshing floor (men only, no women allowed), waits while he eats and drinks, and watches where he makes his bed. When he's asleep, she quietly uncovers his feet and lies down there.
Presumably the weather remains clement, because it's a while before he wakes up. It's dark and he asks her who she is. "It's Ruth," she says. "Have sex with me, because you're my late husband's relative." (I paraphrase, but not much.) Boaz is impressed by the fact that she's not out chasing a younger sexier man, and lets her stay the night as long as she sneaks out before anyone wakes up.
(There's a few legal loose ends to tie up before they can marry: it turns out that there's a closer relative who should have first dibs on Ruth. So Boaz goes to have a chat with him, and the other guy decides marrying Ruth isn't worth it financially to him. Originally I was going to skim over this part but then I noticed a parallel between Ruth/Orpah and Boaz/Other Guy: Ruth and Boaz both want above all to do their duty by family, whereas Orpah and the Other Guy are more pragmatic and stick with the life they already know. When you think about it this way, it's less about Ruth 'winning' marriage by being all virtuous and stuff, and more about both of them being a really good match for each other: much more romantic.)
So Ruth marries Boaz and in due course gives birth to a son. The boy becomes the grandfather of King David, the ancestor of Jesus. But the important thing is that her mother-in-law helps raise the boy: Ruth is still keeping her promise to never leave her mother-in-law.